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The Philosophy, Politics and Religion of British Democracy

Maurice Cowling and Conservatism


Edited by Robert Crowcroft, S.J.D. Green & Richard Whiting


London & NewYork: I. B. Tauris, 2010. viii + 327pp.

Hardcover. £59.50. ISBN 978-1-84511-976-8

Reviewed by Rowland Weston

The University of Waikato



This work arises from a 2007 conference devoted to assessing the intellectual achievement, impact and scholarly viability of one of modern Britain’s more idiosyncratic, complex and marginalised historians. In restoring Cowling to the front rank of recent analysts of nineteenth- and twentieth-century British history and English culture, the purpose of the study is revealed as also attempting to establish an intellectual coherence to Cowling’s oeuvre which the man himself never explicitly articulated. The topic is helpfully launched by Jonathan Parry’s biographical chapter which introduces the significant outputs, orientations and influences of this “Tory, Marxist jester” [23]. And one gains a strong sense that enduring as many of Cowling’s written works might prove to be, all were conceived and offered as timely, context-specific performances.

Kenneth Minogue’s chapter “Liberalism, Conservatism and Oakeshott in Cowling’s Account of Public Doctrine” commences with an elaboration of the important Cowlingite distinction between “doctrine” and “opinion”, that is, between the authoritative, intellectual common ground of a society and the intellectual ephemera indulged and articulated by individuals. This examination of Cowling and Oakeshott reveals affinities and disagreements—most essentially, on the significance of religion in public life, and Christianity, specifically, in British national identity. Liberalism was particularly repugnant to Cowling because under its veil of freedom and tolerance it sought specifically to deny and supersede the truth and value of Christianity. For Cowling, this liberal project was—and is—an insincere, self-serving stratagem of the political classes: the correction necessarily required to address the adverse social consequences of liberalism giving greater scope for government intervention in control of moral and social life.

In “Subjectivity, Civility, Ecclesiasticality”, James Alexander makes an insightful and sophisticated attempt to exhibit the implicit, triadic structure of Cowling’s thought. Alexander is careful to emphasize that his schema is not Cowling’s; but it is, nonetheless, an astute and helpful summary analysis of the latter’s habitual intellectual mode. For Cowling was concerned fundamentally with the interrelations between the individual in the mode of independent subjective existence and communal, collective or political life and the relation of both to an ultimate, absolute spiritual or moral reality.

Michael Grenfell’s “Cowling and Liberalism” argues that the antipathy to liberalism definitive of Cowling’s life and work requires some qualification. Cowling’s anti-liberalism was most forcibly and famously expressed in his Mill and Liberalism (1963); yet as Grenfell rightly points out, this was less a work of Mill scholarship than a deliberately provocative attack on the liberal clerisy of post-World War 2 Britain. Cowling argues that the advocates of liberalism employed it as a stalking horse with which to introduce their own repressive and intolerant post-Christian moral and intellectual orthodoxy. In doing so, Cowling is, of course, conflating Mill’s classic liberalism with the statist, big-government liberalism of later social engineers. But for Cowling, this is an ultimately legitimate move as both derive from, and advance the secular, rationalist agenda of, the Enlightenment. Yet Cowling’s historical acuity was not without its deficiencies in this matter. Grenfell goes on to explore the extent to which Cowling failed to acknowledge the substantial common ground shared by classical liberalism and conservatism: in the main, their profound scepticism about human nature.

The influence of Herbert Butterfield is a fact of Cowling’s intellectual biography more assumed than understood. As a consequence, Michael Bentley’s informative and nuanced chapter on the two Peterhouse scholars is of especial interest. In “Herbert Butterfield and Maurice Cowling”, he argues that Cowling’s appointment—in which Butterfield played a central role—was not part of a conspiracy to stack the College with conservatives, as popular legend has it. To be sure, there existed strong affinities between the two men: they were convinced Christians and highly mistrustful of the secularising character and agenda of contemporary liberalism. But Butterfield was definitely not sympathetic to Cowling’s quasi-Namierite assumption that the personalities and machinations of elites were fundamentally determinative of political outcomes. Moreover, he was deeply suspicious of, and troubled by, Cowling’s propensity to create disciples among his students—though it is far from clear whether, in fact, Cowling actively sought to create such acolytes. Nor did Butterfield approve of Cowling’s preoccupation with the minutiae of quotidian elite politics. Butterfield saw the moral and pedagogic role of History as providing an evidentially-grounded sense of the Providentially-shaped longue durée. Cowling, predictably, found such a vision far too mystical, imprecise and, in the Popperian sense, historicist.

Philip Williamson’s “Maurice Cowling and Modern British Political History” explores the impact of Cowling’s political histories 1867: Disraeli, Gladstone and Revolution (1967), The Impact of Labour: 1920-1924 (1971) and The Impact of Hitler: 1933-1940 (1975). We are advised that Cowling’s focus on decision-making among political elites—while subordinating the role and activities of parties, constituencies and ideas—should not be regarded as anything other than a methodological expedient. Although limited to relatively short periods of time, these volumes serve to explicate Cowling’s perception of significant and perennial features of political life; and while attracting notice for their startling originality and cleverness, it seems that they were perhaps too unorthodox, even complex, to be absorbed in any substantive way into scholarly discourse, preoccupied as it was in the 1960s and 1970s with class and gender issues. Williamson shows how Cowling’s fundamental attention to the individual politician sharpened his appreciation of the contribution made by intra-party tensions and the mutability of party identities to macro-political outcomes. Crucially, he also demonstrates how Cowling’s focus on individual political actors was not an attempt to reduce all political activity to simplistic motives of self-interest and ambition, as numerous of Cowling’s detractors have maintained. Rather, Cowling’s work stresses the complexity and mutability of the personalities and personal motives of politicians in their response to complex and dynamic situations. Williamson then addresses the central and most controversial element of Cowling’s work: his focus on elite politics. It is shown how Cowling’s bracketing off—for emphasis—of elites was not a blanket dismissal of the importance of other political activists and groups. Nor was Cowling’s conception of a political elite restricted to party political leaders, but could include newspaper owners and civil servants, trade unionists and back-bench MPs; what mattered to Cowling was that such individuals were recognised as leaders by peers within and across party political lines.

Crowcroft’s chapter “ ‘High Politics’, Political Practice and the Labour Party” is unique in this collection as it illustrates and analyses the Cowlingite mode by applying it outside the Conservative ethos to which it is often supposed solely to apply. The history of the British Labour Party is generally—and, it is suggested, uncritically—assumed to be explicable primarily in terms of the ideological, sociological and psephological factors Cowling’s approach tends to elide. For Crowcroft, the history of the Labour Party is best understood in terms of the ambition, self-interest and individual will to power of its protagonists, rather than by recourse to the traditional explanatory devices of Left-Centre factionalism. Significantly, he goes on to stress that this nexus of fundamental and determinative motives can also comprise sincerity, benevolence and altruism: the Cowlingite mode does not propose that all political activity can necessarily be reduced to cynicism and duplicity. Nonetheless, it is in the incessant manoeuvring of competitive individuals that we are to find the basic drivers of political activity. And nowhere, it is claimed, is this more apparent—and more denied—than in the British Labour Party. The Labour Party’s characteristic self-definition predominantly along ideological lines also renders it an especially fruitful subject for Cowling’s insistence that the tactical manoeuvring central to all political practice is evident, indeed is primarily evident, in politicians’ use of language. For a Cowlingite, Labour’s internal factionalism might well be expressed in ideological terms but its roots are elsewhere: in the individual will to power. In order better to understand the activity of Labour politicians Crowcroft moves beyond Cowling somewhat in employing a Namierite notion of “temperament”[174]. In place of the old Right/Left categorisation of Labour politicians, Crowcroft offers a model—based on temperament—of “establishment” / “oppositional” [175] types who seek power, respectively, in national government and within the Labour party itself. 

Green’s “As if Religion Mattered: An Alternative Reading of English Intellectual History since c.1840” analyses Cowling’s three-volume magnum opus, Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England (2001), a work for the most part studiously ignored or violently condemned by the scholarly community. Cowling was convinced that the intellectual history of modern England was substantively defective because it had overlooked the central importance in English life of the religiosity that the liberal, rationalist intelligentsia had tried to destroy and replace with its own quasi-religious assumptions. Green dismisses one of the major methodological criticisms of Cowling’s work: its focus on biography and prosopography at the putative expense of social, institutional and discursive analytical frames. He insists that the process whereby Christianity was superseded by a variety of modern religions—conceiving the latter in a broad Cowlingite sense—is best charted by Cowling’s exploration of individual thinkers’ engagement with the fundamental question “ ‘What should the English believe?’ ” [205]. Against the criticism of Cowling’s unchronological treatment of his topic Green asserts the former’s conviction that the secularisation of modern English intellectual life was a far more disparate, variously-paced and sophisticated process than most chronology-obsessed historians allow.

The religious element in Cowling’s thought is pursued more intensively and explicitly in Ian Harris’s “The Anglican Mind of Maurice Cowling” where stress is laid on the importance to Cowling’s Christianity and his political thought of the Johannine writings as imbibed via the New Testament scholars Edwyn Hoskyns and Noel Davey. We are apprised that at the root of Cowling’s Christianity was an emphatic rejection of liberal denials of the divinity of Christ and an equally emphatic insistence that the authority of the Church and its mission in the world derived therefrom. In this view, liberal Christianity—indeed, liberalism itself—constituted a defective and dangerous ersatz religion which assumed that all human needs could be met by human intelligence and agency. For Hoskyns, Christianity alone supplied humanity’s fundamental soteriological hope and moral orientation. The Anglican Church had a special mission, then, to encourage the English people in Divinely-sanctioned charity and social solidarity. For Cowling, this mission also included resistance to, and critique of, specious modern alternatives to Christianity which, despite their claims to rationality, were, like Christianity, also dependant on “arbitrary” [234], faith-based assumptions. Harris goes to great lengths unpacking the Augustinian underpinnings of Cowling’s thought: humanity is selfish, wilful and woefully ignorant. The grace of God is the only remedy for our individual failings and is often additionally manifested in the seeming serendipity of collective, political outcomes.

In “Conclusion: The Impact of Cowling” the editors, a little over-generously, accord Cowling the leading role in placing religion back on the agenda of serious historical scholarship of Britain’s nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Yet it is fair to say that perhaps Cowling’s greatest achievement was—and is—to unsettle consensus in this field. Firstly as that consensus as erected by Cowling’s Whiggish predecessors and contemporaries and then by a later generation of scholars given over variously to social, sexual and ethnic themes. This helpful volume sheds welcome light not only on the richness, profundity and complexity of much of Cowling’s oeuvre but also on the academic and wider intellectual contexts in which it appeared. In doing so it renders Cowling’s marginalisation by the scholarly community both explicable and regrettable.





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